‘The Sigh of the Oppressed’: Race, Religion, and the Need for Liberation Theology

Matthew Race - Guest Writer

When Marx first wrote the above words in his catchily-titled A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he was speaking out against the threat to true freedom caused by religious institutions. Religion was seen as a numbing agent that would distract the individual from the oppression of the unjust structures of society. We see today the real and tangible impacts of western institutions which still propagate discrimination, and our ignorance in not addressing these problems. This has been so clearly demonstrated over the last month with the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent protests that have erupted around the world calling for an end to the systemic racism that pervades society.
But if religion, as Marx suggested, is even slightly to blame for this oppression being so prevalent, then why write in support of a movement grounded in Roman Catholic tradition, an institution that stands above all others in western imagination as the most corrupt and oppressive of the lot?
I hope over the course of the article I can demonstrate the enduring significance of the Christian movement of ‘Liberation Theology’. The voices of these theologians, when given proper attention, provide critical insight into not only understanding the current issues of systematic racial injustice, but also a pathway to successful responses to this tragedy.

A History of Liberation

Liberation Theology as a formal movement finds its origins in 20th Century Latin America, although it naturally traces its fundamental beliefs to the central figure of Christianity: the person of Jesus Christ. A predominately Catholic continent due to the colonial efforts of Spain and Portugal, South American clergy in the 1970s and onwards have sought to refocus the concerns of the church and wider world to the plight of the poor and the oppressed, re-establishing social justice and advocacy for large-scale societal change as the key message of the life, death, and resurrection Jesus, not simply individual concern with whether one gets ‘go to heaven when they die’. This enables the theology to challenge pervasive societal structures as a cause of this injustice (as opposed to simply the individual as cause of evil) most importantly pinning the concept of ‘sin’ to socio-economic institutions. 
More on this later. 
While this movement was highly contextual, it does not mean that its theories did not spread. Simultaneously, black North American voices began to expand upon the notion of liberation from oppression. Jesus’ care for the poor and those at the bottom of society above all is paramount, and tragically, they observed, it was (and still is) the black community which is pushed to this bottom. Naturally, this leads to the critique of systems that artificially enforced black poverty and denigration, once again challenging societal structures as the evil to be overcome.
These thoughts began to merge to become what is now seen as Black Liberation Theology, a global movement concerned first and foremost with alleviating the suffering of black people by following the example of Jesus Christ the Ultimate Liberator. 
Those more familiar with Christianity will know that Jesus’ central message is ‘repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand.’ His life, death, and resurrection fulfil this message, and it is the ongoing work of Christians to continue the building of such a kingdom on earth. This is the praxis of liberation theology, for this ‘kingdom’ (not to be confused for some kind of nation state) is for the poor and the oppressed; it means the bringing of justice and real liberation to people, and this is what liberation theology seeks to achieve.

Theology’s Role in Societal Change

At this stage, those of you reading who are of a different faith or none may hold concern as to whether any of this ‘theology’ has any real importance in what is a presumably secular conversation regarding the dignities of the marginalised. I offer this quick aside as to why indeed theology does have an important voice in society: 
We must remember that almost all of western thought, both good and bad, is grounded in Christian history. It is a heritage that we cannot be, and are not, divorced from in the 21st century, regardless of whether we want to be. Due to this, much of our thought and language around rights and personhood trace themselves back to the work of theology. I would argue, though I cannot expand upon so here, that even western secularism or the earlier criticisms of Marx cannot exist without Christian theology. Theological dialogue, therefore, has always had a profound impact on our society and using theories that continue in this tradition will naturally speak into such a landscape, regardless of the prevailing attitudes of individuals towards the specifics of Christianity. (For a richer exploration of this topic, I highly recommend Tom Holland’s Dominion).

The Unmasking of Society - Making Sense of ‘Sin’

So now we have discussed some of the history of this movement, and why in general it has a right to speak into issues of the world. Due to the limitations of such an article, we turn our attention now to only one of the many specific goods liberation theology brings to the current conversation.
I touched upon a concept earlier that really lies at the heart of liberation theology, that of reframing ‘sin’ from the individual to societal. It is this framework that really aids in such a conversation. While sin may be a concept somewhat scoffed at in contemporary western society, we would be wise not to forget the power of such evocative language. Sin, as opposed to being seen as something along the lines of ‘bad things people do’ (a definition so useless that it encompasses both murder and eating too much chocolate) instead is relocated in the unjust social and economic structures. Sin, in this sense then, is that which break relationships and destroy lives, personified in the institutions which have historically privileged the rich over the poor, the white over the black. We are of course, now already aware of the harrowing consequences of such structures, be it in education, legislation, or even the church, and most of us seem to know without the knowledge of theology. So why speak of its ‘ongoing significance’? The answer to the enduring utility of liberation theology lies in its understanding of the pervasive nature of ‘sin’. One liberation theologian, José Ignacio González Faus, explains this aptly so:
‘When human beings sin, they create structures of sin, which, in their turn, make human beings sin.’
This is not simply a closed loop however, as he goes on to demonstrate:
‘[through this process] Sin is masked from human beings (or rather it is human beings who mask it from themselves) to the point where the sense of guilt becomes anesthetized.’
So, we are blind to the structures established, as we are not oppressed by it, and we have lacked a reaction to it as we have been forced deeper into this cycle of blindness. Yet:
Through this view of sin, perhaps liberation theology, without realizing it, has acted in the same way as Jesus […] it has unmasked the sinful arrogance of the First World, which was camouflaging the truth with injustice to the point where “they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.” (Rom. 1:21)’
It is the second quote which is most prominent. 
We do not exist outside of the grasp of institutions of sin, and in fact, unless we are those who are oppressed, we can become blinded by the ‘mask’ it creates, numbing us to its damaging effects. This, I suggest, is why there are many otherwise seemingly ‘good’ people who do not seek to take action against such injustices, as we have been left blind to the way in which we partake in and perpetuate these ‘structures of sin’. This is how we have allowed ourselves to continue to oppress minority populations for generations, despite claiming to be progressive people. We are not able to step outside of our cultural contexts, just in the same way that we could not step out of our masks of sin. It is the unmasking and revealing of these structures for what they are, by those who know them as an ever-present reality (language unique to liberation theology), that we can begin to make change.    

We see an enduring significance, and indeed need, for liberation theology in the current discussions regarding race and inequality, specifically the work of black liberation theologians. This theological position succeeds as not only does it provide us with effective language to speak into the systems of oppression in modern society, rightly defining them as ‘sin’, challenging the injustice caused, a being the preferential option for the poor, but it also helps us make sense of our and others ignorance of such issues. It is only through listening to the voices we have marginalised in our collective sin, that we see a way forward. Liberation Theology then, as Marx suggests of religion, is indeed the sigh of the oppressed. It is the place where the cries of those who are downtrodden by society are treated with value and a place where their suffering is understood: the place where the captive is set free.

grayscale photo of people in front of cathedral


José Ignacio González Faus, ‘Sin’, in Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology, ed. by Ignacio Ellacuria and Jon Sobrino
Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind
Dwight Hopkins, Edward Antonio, The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology
Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right


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